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God's Word on Sunday: People need time to respond to grace

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  • April 25, 2021

Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2 (Year B) Acts 9:26-31; Psalm 22; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8

No one could blame the members of the Jerusalem community for being suspicious of their unexpected “guest.”

He stirred up fear and loathing within them. He was none other than Saul of Tarsus and was their chief tormenter and persecutor, responsible for many arrests and deaths from among their number. Yet here he was in their midst, expecting to be received as a brother in the faith.

As far as the community was concerned, Saul was just pretending to be a believer — his visit would be followed by more arrests and persecutions. But Barnabas intervened, relating to them the story of Saul’s dramatic encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus.

They grudgingly gave way and accepted him, but eventually some of their number plotted against him. Saul had to get out of town fast and he did so, returning to his native city of Tarsus.

Saul/Paul’s story is similar to the stories of many. Traumatic events and encounters can change lives in dramatic ways. Some might find themselves embracing ideas that they previously hated and feared or accepting people that they may have despised. For instance, there are many cases of neo-Nazis and white supremacists turning completely around and repudiating their noxious views.

This is one of the many reasons that Jesus taught us not to judge others and to pray for our persecutors. We never know when they might become our friends and fellow travellers. Every human being is a work in progress and this work does not end until we draw our last breath.

An examination of the lives of the saints reveals that many of them were unlikely candidates for canonization at some points in their lives. Grace is a reality and is always at work, but people need time, space and experience to respond to it. We can help by allowing them to change and by trusting in grace and the work of the Holy Spirit. This is especially urgent in the experience of our own time of increasing intolerance, bigotry and polarization.

How do we know if our actions are right or wrong? The author of 1 John has some good advice: Listen to your heart. He is assuming that one is already abiding in Christ and, if that is the case, we are loving the Lord and one another.

God does not have to condemn us when we sin — our hearts do the job. We will feel a lack of harmony between our own hearts and that of the Lord, and the discomfort will make it clear that we are on the wrong track. We can harden our hearts and refuse to listen, but in the end, we will have no peace. Love that is rooted in a personal relationship with Jesus is our moral and spiritual compass for leading holy and upright lives.

An astronaut on a spacewalk depends entirely on the lifeline that connects him or her with the command ship. They are kept alive by the oxygen that flows through it and if it were severed, life would cease. Jesus made a similar point with His analogy of the vine and the branches.

Faithful followers are connected to Him through the spirit, which gives life, spiritual nourishment and growth. If the integrity of that connection is maintained, all is well. The individual will flourish and grow in spiritual transformation. This requires “abiding” — remaining or dwelling — in the Lord continually.

Abiding is far more than ordinary religious observance, which grants a certain level of spirituality and moral guidance. It is a conscious orientation of one’s heart, mind and soul, enabling the believer to participate in the life of the Trinity even in this life.

This requires commitment and constancy, both of which can be difficult at times. But turning away from the source of life and spiritual nourishment leads to spiritual decay. Just as the leaves and the fruit on the vine wither and die, so will our inner life. We will “get by” but deprive ourselves of the tremendous gifts that Jesus promises to those that dwell and remain in Him.

This is really at the heart of the crisis of Christianity today. People forget they are the branches and think that they are the vine, but there is only one vine: Jesus, the source and giver of the Spirit.

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